Feminist Bildung in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli

By McIlvanney, Siobhan | The Modern Language Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Feminist Bildung in the Novels of Claire Etcherelli


McIlvanney, Siobhan, The Modern Language Review


This article examines the corpus of the contemporary French novelist, Claire Etcherelli, through a feminist optic. (1) Etcherelli's three novels, Elise ou la vraie vie, A propos de Clemence, and Un arbre voyageur, contain little immediate evidence of an overt feminist polemic. Her works provide neither the detailed analysis of the female socialization process nor the interpretation of its epistemological significance typical of much contemporary feminist writing. The frequently subservient characteristics of her female protagonists further impede Etcherelli's accommodation within a feminist framework. Despite these ambivalences, this article argues that as both narratives and protagonists develop, a distinct feminist agenda can be seen to emerge from Etcherelli's writing.

One way in which the overall narrative framework of these three novels can be interpreted from a feminist perspective is its assimilation of the traditionally male Bildungsroman to relate the spiritual and political awakenings of the female protagonists. The adoption of the Bildungsroman genre underlines the interdependence of women's active participation in society and the development of their personal and political knowledge. Only by escaping the seclusion of their origins can Etcherelli's protagonists gain an understanding of them, and acknowledge their limitations. The Bildungsroman hence provides an appropriate medium for feminist narrative in its emphasis on the cultural construction of subjectivity and engagement in the public sphere as a means of promoting personal growth.

Feminist criticism has underlined the centrality of gender in that construction. As the editors of one feminist critical anthology contend: 'Gender [...] has not been assimilated as a pertinent category, despite the fact that the sex of the protagonist modifies every aspect of a particular Bildungsroman: its narrative structure, its implied psychology, its representation of social pressures.' (2) In the prototypical Goethean model of Bildung, whatever the male protagonist's occasional obstacles to self-fulfilment, the underlying assumption is his capacity for individual realization and integration into the social status quo. Indeed, two prerequisite characteristics of the Bildungsroman protagonist are autonomy and self-definition, values previously considered 'unfeminine'. The trajectory of the female Bildungsheld from uninformed character to informed narrator consequently involves far greater liberations than her male counterpart. She must struggle to reduce the tensions between what she personally envisages as a fulfilled existence and society's monolithic projection of what her future should entail, between ostracism and stagnation. The Voyage In emphasizes this dichotomy in the female Bildungsroman:

Women's developmental tasks and goals, which must be realized in a culture pervaded by male norms, generate distinctive narrative tensions--between autonomy and relationship, separation and community, loyalty to women and attraction to men. The social constraints on female maturation produce other conflicts, not unique to female characters, but more relentless in women's stories. Repeatedly, the female protagonist or Bildungsheld must chart a treacherous course between the penalties of expressing sexuality and suppressing it, between the costs of inner concentration and of direct confrontation with society, between the price of succumbing to madness and of grasping a repressive 'normality'. (The Voyage In, pp. 12-13)

The genesis of the female protagonist's Bildung in the feminist novel of self-discovery also differs markedly from the traditional model. While the traditional male hero enjoys from the outset a position of relative autonomy, the female protagonist's initial situation is generally one of dependency and powerlessness. All Etcherelli's works begin with a negative model of female alienation, which is gradually overcome through the protagonist's self-realization and participation in the public domain. …

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